Chuck Schuldiner: Lust for Life
He called his band Death, but Chuck Schuldiner loved life, family and of course, metal.
His enthusiasm was in large part fueled by his love of Kiss, who by this time in the late Seventies had reached their commercial zenith. For years, they were Chuck’s favorite group, as evidenced by a family photo in which a very young Chuck is dressed up like Paul Stanley. At the age of 13, he was treated to his first Kiss concert, courtesy of his mother.
By then, he had discovered metal through New Wave of British Heavy Metal acts, including Raven and, his favorite, Iron Maiden, whose guitar tandem of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith were critical to forming his love of heavy, but melodic, guitar lines. In lieu of guitar lessons, Chuck had begun to teach himself to play by ear, listening to the songs he loved and, with uncommon determination for an adolescent, sounding them out on the fretboard of his guitar. “He had a very good ear for music early on, and what he listened to he taught himself to play,” says his mother. “He absolutely loved doing that.”
In the metal-intensive years of the early Eighties, Chuck found no shortage of fresh inspiration. In addition to U.S. bands like Van Halen, he was captivated by Scandinavian metal acts such as Hellhammer and Mercyful Fate, and Britain’s Venom, who would inform his growing death metal sensibilities. In 1983, the arrival of thrash acts like Metallica, Possessed and Slayer introduced him to music heavier and more brutal than anything he heard before. By then, he was 16 and coming into his own as a guitarist. “I was lucky to start playing guitar in the Eighties,” he told Pit, “when so many great players were around to inspire me, like Yngwie Malmsteen, Van Halen and especially Dave Murray and Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden.”
Chuck’s growing fondness for extreme metal was no cause for alarm around the Schuldiner household. Malcolm and Jane had always been supportive of their children’s interests, and Frank’s death only brought the family closer. “There is always fear involved when a child dies, and I watched diligently, afraid it could happen again,” says Jane. “Chuck’s father worked and had tennis and other hobbies, so I was more involved with Chuck and his interests, as I was with my other children.”
And so when Chuck decided to form a band with two local high schoolers, the garage was given up to the group’s rehearsals. They called themselves Mantas, a pseudonym first adopted by Venom guitarist Jeffrey Dunn. Chuck’s cohorts in this venture were guitarist Frederick DeLillo, rechristened Rick Rozz, and drummer/singer Barney “Kam” Lee. The band had no bassist. Chuck wrote most of the band’s material and occasionally shared vocal duties with Lee. Shortly after forming, Mantas released a five-track cassette called Death by Metal, recorded in Schuldiner’s garage. Its cover photo featured the three band members in front of a sign that reads “Danger High Voltage.”
Public reception to the group was anything but electric, however. That, combined with internal band tensions, led to Mantas’ breakup in late 1984. For the first of many times to come, Chuck found himself searching for new band members. Not surprisingly, given the uncommon nature of his music, he found his options within the Orlando area limited. Within weeks of Mantas’ breakup, Chuck had reconciled with Rozz and Lee. The old lineup reconvened but with a new lead singer—Chuck—and a new name: Death.
If ever Chuck’s music had alarmed his parents, they did not try to deter him. Even now, as he rubbed against the still-fresh wounds of Frank’s untimely death, they kept silent. “I always thought that the name of the band derived from the death of his brother,” says Jane. “And while the word had such painful memories, I did not object.”
Under Chuck’s leadership, Death began to find its distinctive voice. As the writer and, now, singer of the group’s lyrics, he turned the focus of Death’s songs away from Lee’s preferred devil imagery and toward gore. The group released the five-song cassette Reign of Terror in October 1984, and the three-track Infernal Death tape in March 1985. Both were sold in the underground cassette-trading market. Response to Death’s music was good, but shortly after issuing Infernal Death, the trio broke up again. While Lee and Rozz joined Massacre, another death metal act that had formed the previous year, Chuck weighed his options.
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